Environmental Sustainability Student Blogger Study USA

Environmental Justice, Embodied

Claire and Sara carry a canoe into the Mississippi River.

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Sara de Sobrino (she/her) is HECUA’s student blogger for Environmental Sustainability fall 2020. She is student at University of Minnesota- Twin Cities, majoring in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, minoring in Sustainability Studies. Read on for her final post!

In a semester defined for so many people by time spent sitting indoors and in intangible, online classrooms, HECUA has kept me grounded in the environment and constantly in motion. I’ve biked alongside the Mississippi River on my way to class, scattered fescue and clover seeds on a woodland trail, mulched an urban pumpkin patch, paddled a canoe up the winding Truedale Slough, used a chainsaw to break down red pine trunks, chased down a runaway rabbit named Oreo, and split wood with a long axe.

Sara stands with an axe raised above a log atop a stump. There is an orange glow of late autumn light in the background.
Learning to split wood at my internship site, Lily Springs Farm. Photo by Claire Cambray.

My Lily Springs Farm internship supervisor and wood-splitting instructor Elle Sulivan told us about learning to split wood from someone who placed logs all around him in a circle and then spun around, splitting each with a single strike. That’s a cool trick, but it doesn’t facilitate learning or empower a newcomer to embrace the vulnerability of practicing something new. A lot of environmental and outdoor spaces can quickly devolve into competitions of Extreme Outdoor Sports, but in HECUA we’ve managed to do hard, physical work without emulating the eco-macho bravado of that wood-splitting display. It probably took me a dozen strikes to split a log, but that’s okay. Splitting logs is hard work! Our bodies are all different and there are things that mine can’t do, but I try to resist my frustration of intermittently being in the bow of the slowest canoe by remembering that I can enact environmental justice even if I don’t have ripped biceps.

In the unseasonably cold last week of October, we braved the chilly winds on a five-day canoe paddle down the Mississippi River live-streaming into the HKW: Shape of a Practice conference with Joe Underhill. One of the main themes that our educators stressed on that the canoe trip was sensing: the sounds of birds along the river, the smell of industry and pollution, the way our paddles made the water ripple out from our canoes. Learning through careful observation, in this physical and embodied experience, is meaningful in a way that can be hard to capture through distance learning. Another thing that’s hard: accessing the Mississippi River to have this wonderful embodied experience. Few people can just lash a canoe to their car and then unload into the water to perfectly J-stroke themselves downstream. The value of this HECUA program has been the many collaborators like Joe Underhill who have facilitated those experiences for me and my classmates.

Although being buffeted by winds in the middle of the Mississippi River certainly made me feel many things, there are ways of sensing that don’t require so much recreational equipment or so much cold. Last week, we met in our virtual classroom with Ananya Chatterjea from Ananya Dance Theater, who led us through a dance where we mimicked the soft fractal-ing of the petals in a bouquet of yellow roses that she showed us through her laptop camera. We observe and interact with the world around us, and we embody it in our work. This takes time to do faithfully, but it’s time well spent.

We first learned that lesson in a virtual visit from policy coordinator Ansha Zaman at the Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy when she told us about the rigorous process of community input required to create thoughtful environmental justice policies. Later that week, C Terrence Anderson, the Director of Community Based Research at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, told us nearly the exact same thing. Effective research takes the time to talk to people and understand the historical contexts of power and trauma, then makes recommendations to, as Anderson says, “put people in the driver’s seat of their own healing.” Thorough community engagement takes a lot of labor and time, but when painter Olivia Levins Holden visited our class, she told us how that process is even more valuable than the product of the finished mural. Even, and especially, when that process forces you to change your original plan and bring more people into the project: more painters if you’re creating a mural like Olivia Levins Holden, and more environmental justice groups if you’re creating a policy like Ansha Zaman.

I think of myself out on the river, and that competitive desire to paddle as hard as I can, so that my canoe stays in the front of the group. Then, I can be one of the first to unload the crate of sandwich supplies for lunch. That feeling of urgency only intensifies when the stakes are higher than first dibs on the baba ganoush. When we’re talking about environmental justice, the stakes are often high. But letting that urgency whip you into a frenzy of anxious action—without thoughtfully considering the complex ecosystem of power and carbon that you are a part of, and without collaborating with those who exist in the ecosystem with you—is not helpfully contributing to environmental justice. You might even knock the baba ganoush overboard!

Four canoes paddling down the Mississippi River beneath a partly cloudy sky. The clouds are reflected in water below.
The pirate flotilla of HECUA students and other associates of Joe Underhill paddling the Mississippi River, all united under the banner of the Jolly Roger. Photo by me, Sara de Sobrino.

Although the guest educators who have visited our virtual classroom almost every day are all from different disciplines, there has been such harmony in their messages to us. The themes of regenerative care work, decentering of the individual human self, and community collaboration have been echoed by scientists, organizers, and artists alike. The embodiment of these themes is what unites practitioners of environmental justice, not the medium in which they practice. Our bodies are all different and so are our gifts, and so there are as many valid ways to contribute to environmental justice as there are contributors. We are all invaluable to this movement. That includes those of us who can split an entire circle of logs with a series of single strokes, and those of us who cannot lift the axe at all.

P.S. My sincere gratitude to everyone in the HECUA community and beyond who has read my blog posts this semester, and especially to those of you who have reached out to me to share your thoughts or encouragement. You are all invaluable. 


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